Saturday, November 29, 2014

GAMEDAY: New Orleans Saints

Home, Sweet Home
TV: FOX (map)

What To Watch For

1. Drew Brees Outdoors

The Saints offense, when clicking on all cylinders, is one of the best in the NFL. Drew Brees is consistently mentioned as one of the top quarterbacks in the game. Brees and the Saints offense is just as deadly as their reputation. However, Brees has another reputation that will come into play - his own outdoor record. In his career (which includes his time in San Diego), Brees is 55-48 in outdoor games (.533) and 56-33 in domes (.629). Additionally, Brees averages almost 60 yards less per game outdoors than he does indoors.

However, if the 2014 NFL season has taught us anything it is that the past does not matter. The Saints just dropped 3 games in a row at home, and Brees was decidedly mediocre in all 3 of them. Given the Steelers struggles in the secondary this season, it is entirely possible that Brees comes out and lights them up. However...

2. Back in Black (and Gold)

The Steelers are set to get 4 injured defensive players back on Sunday. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Shamarko Thomas are all probable to play with Ryan Shazier listed as questionable. Shazier did go through a full practice on Friday after being limited earlier in the week but it looks like a toss up as to whether or not he will play. The defense has been porous at best this season, but getting Ike and Troy back will certainly help the secondary and Shamarknado is a much better option to back up Troy than Will Allen. Steve McLendon remains out, but the Steelers will likely be in a nickel defense much of the game against the Saints anyways.

3. Jimmy Graham

The Steelers achilles heel this season has been defending tight ends. The middle of the field is basically a barren wasteland where anyone can run free to their hearts content. Graham is not a matchup problem, he is a matchup disaster. The Steelers will need to find a way to be physical with Graham at the line of scrimmage to try to slow down his timing with Brees because that is really the only way they can hope to defend him. If the Steelers come out with their normal defensive strategy to cover tight ends (which is to say, not cover them at all), Graham will eat them alive.

4. Which defense is worse?

These two teams are almost mirror images of each other, which just goes to show you how fine of a line the difference is between being 7-4 and being 4-7. Both teams have offense ranked in the Top 10 (9th and 10th respectively) and both have scored 288 points on the season. Both teams rank in the bottom half of the league in total defense with the Steelers allowing 5.9 yards per play (26th in the NFL) and the Saints allowing 6.1 yards per play (30th in the NFL). On the scoreboard, neither team has been able to prevent opponents from putting up points with the Saints allowing 26 points per game and the Steelers allowing 24 points per game. Additionally, both teams rank in the bottom 4 in the league on percentage of drives their opponents score on (New Orleans 43.9%, Pittsburgh 41.3%). The Saints MO this season has been to lose games late and the Steelers will need to hope that trend continues.

5. Big Contributions from Big Players

The biggest thing that happened to the Steelers over the bye week was the dumping of LeGarrette Blount, which left our backfield remarkably thin with just Dri Archer and Josh Harris behind Le'Veon Bell. This basically means that the Steelers are going to ride Le'Veon Bell as an every down back for the last 5 weeks of the season. Simply put, the offense will go as far as he can carry it. Bell will not only be responsible for shouldering the load in the running game but also for being a 3rd down back and handling blitz pickups. Antonio Brown is on pace to break Hines Ward's single-season receptions record and possibly break his own receiving yards record. AB has been outstanding in all but one game this year - the loss to the Jets. The Steelers need AB to continue to step up in big situations, especially against a porous Saints defense. This game has all the makings of a shootout and the Steelers need to attack this game like they did against Indianapolis and Baltimore with the notion that it is going to take 40 points to win this game.

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